Staring Down an Abyss(*): Prospects of Nuclear Deterrent Stability in the Sino-South Asian Region


Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar 

Keywords: Nuclear deterrent stability, China, “How Much is Enough?” India’s Nuclear Doctrine

Download full article here: Shankar, Staring Down an Abyss


The Nuclear Motive

Nuclearisation of the South Asian region was driven by forces that were vastly different from that which resulted in the apocalyptical human tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The first four nuclear weapon states built their arsenal with a war-fighting logic which led to strategies that not only propagated the first use but also conventionalized the weapon, with the perverse belief that control of escalation was within their means. The uninhibited intrusion of technologies gave to them the power to obliterate the world many times over in a  ‘Strangelovesque[i]’ parody that mocked life.

Motivation for the Sino-Indo-Pak arsenals was more by the need for an impermeable defensive shield that took inspiration from Brodie’s aphorism that nuclear weapons had changed the very character of warfare with war avoidance rather than waging being the political objective. India’s nuclear doctrine evolved from four guiding norms. The first was that the nation would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. The second, a nuclear first strike would invite an assured massive retaliation. There was a third equally critical unwritten faith and that was, under no circumstance would the weapon be conventionalized. The final canon, it is significant to note, developed in the time of the Cold War and yet remained uniquely divorced from the one norm that characterized that war, that is, the illogical faith that a nuclear war was not only wageable but also winnable. This last principle matured into an iron cast division between the Controller of the weapon and its Custodian.

The decision not to conventionalize, was based on circumstances unique to the Indian State. India’s nuclear program was conceived and executed through a techno-political decision made in 1948, which resulted in the establishment of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission. From then onwards through the 1974 euphemistic peaceful nuclear explosion and the near quarter century of dithering till India declared herself a nuclear weapon state in 1998, the agenda was driven by a techno-politico-bureaucratic nexus. The paradox was the absence of formal military involvement in the nuclear establishment till after 1998. Significantly, no other nuclear weapon state has embarked on a weapons program without the direct and persistent involvement of the military. All this was a direct consequence of the post partition aberration in higher defence management which suffered from a misplaced trepidation of military control of the state and the flawed belief that civilian control of the military not only implied superior dual control by the politico-bureaucratic alliance but also a self fashioned conviction that military matters were essentially of execution and had little to do with policy making or strategic planning. It was not till 1999 when the Kargil review committee and the consequent group of ministers reviewed national security in its entirety, that substantial changes to higher defence management in India were put in place. The institution of the Strategic Forces Command and its Commander in Chief along with a doctrine to operationalise the deterrent were amongst the salient reforms.

Of the techno-politico-bureaucratic nexus it must be said that even before the articulation of the nuclear doctrine it never sought a conventional role for nuclear weapons. Whether this strategic orientation was by instinct, design, by tradition or an innate fear of the power of the military is really not germaine to our study; what it did do was to create a distinctive approach to the entire process of operationalising the deterrent, for it played a decisive role in separating Controller from the Custodian. Viewed from a different perspective this last feature expressed the conviction that, between nuclear armed antagonists, the use of nuclear weapons sets into motion an uncontrollable chain of mass destruction that not only defies manipulation but also obliterates the very purpose of polity.


India’s Nuclear Doctrine

India’s nuclear doctrine was made public on 4th January 2003. The doctrine presents two perspectives. The first part deals with ‘Form’ with nuclear exchange avoidance and minimality as governing considerations. Sensitivity to the multilateral nature of settings and yet not show a diffidence to the existential nuclear challenges that marked the regional scenario; was intrinsic to policy. Credibility as a function of surveillance, effectiveness, readiness and survivability completed the structure. The doctrine provided for alternatives and a guarantee that the second strike would cause unacceptable damage. Also included are certain philosophical goals that underscored belief in the ultimate humanity of things.

The second part of the doctrine deals with substance, with operationalising the deterrent and Command and Control as the main themes. Development of the ‘triad’ is so structured that credibility was neither compromised nor readiness undermined. As mentioned earlier a clear division is made between the Controller and Custodian with multiple redundancy and dual release authorization at every level. Command of the arsenal under all circumstances remains under a political prerogative with comprehensive alternatives provided for the nuclear command authority. To recapitulate the salient features of the Indian nuclear doctrine are listed below:-

  • Nuclear weapons are political tools,
  • The nuclear policy follows a ‘Punishment Strategy’. Its governing principle would be No First Use.
  • Retaliation to a first strike would be massive and would cause unacceptable damage.
  • The use of chemical, biological or other WMD may invite nuclear option.
  • Nuclear weapons will not be used against non nuclear weapon states.
  • A unilateral moratorium against nuclear testing and continued stringent controls over proliferation.
  • The goal of global nuclear disarmament remains.

As mentioned earlier, a deterrent relationship is founded entirely on rationality. On the part of the deteree there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks and on the side of the deterrer rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of risks. The exceptional feature of this cognitive transaction is that the roles are reversible with the crucial proviso that it is in the common interest to maintain equilibrium in the relationship. The determinants of a durable deterrent co-relation are for the association to withstand three pressures that are an abiding feature of contemporary politics in the region:

  • The deterrent must be stable by which is implied the doctrinaire underpinnings; command, control and arsenal stewardship must be unwavering and transparent. Inconsistencies and opacity promotes unpredictability, a speculative bulge in the arsenal or the temptation for pre-emptive action.
  • Crisis stability entails the abhorrence of a predilection to reach for the nuclear trigger at first provocation. In this context decision time must give adequate leeway for recognition of having arrived at a ‘redline’ through transparency and unambiguous signaling.
  •  Technological intrusions place the planner on the horns of a dilemma. As a rule technology’s impact on the arsenal and command and control systems serves to compress time and increase overall effectiveness. This intrusion is inevitable. What is undesirable is that it also invites covertness whereas its impact demands transparency.

The three dynamics above have a common thread which could be exploited to enhance stability. This common thread is the need for transparency. During the cold war the two protagonists managed these dynamics through the brute power of the arsenal, dangerous tripwire readiness and incessant provocative deployment. Any solution on these lines is neither exceptional nor tenable and from a contemporary point of view ludicrous. If stability is the aim then clarity and precision in mutual dealings provide the opportunity to develop and solidify the deterrent relationship.

Stresses on Deterrent Stability

There is an entire range of factors that influence stability of a deterrent relationship but those that disproportionately prevail are what will be discussed in the ensuing paragraphs. We begin with the strategic environment and its external dimension. A single hyper power marks the global situation in the wake of the curtains coming down on the Cold War. In addition, the trends of globalization which technology and the mushrooming of democracies has ushered in, makes for the very concept of nation states in terms of their absolute sovereignty a shaky proposition. Three very obvious inconsistencies remain an abiding source of friction for a sovereign nation within the international system. In fact it makes a mockery of the individual nature of a state’s power and its interests. These three maybe summarized as follows:

  • The internal dimension of sovereignty encourages centralism at a point in history when more plurality and democracy is demanded.
  • Sovereignty in its external avatar makes inconceivable international laws and universal regulations yet it is precisely the opposite that globalization requires.
  • Given the vast differentials in military and economic power, sovereignty in terms of supremacy of state remains a chimerical concept. This is vitiated by the networked and globalized nature of the contemporary situation.

Centralism, the absence of plurality and the vast disparity in economic and military power are all symptomatic of the situation in the region. Add to the equation a defacto military center of power that has persisted in the use of non-state actors in pursuit of its ‘national interests’[ii] and the portents of instability become more than apparent. The impact of these contradictory forces taken together not only makes for an unstable relationship, but also brings in a measure of nuclear multilateralism on account of the chain reaction that is set into motion in an action-reaction situation. While the lone hyper power would seek to control the action-reaction predicament, the other poles in the global scenario would seek advantage in it. The fact of the Sino-Pak collusion in the nuclear field is one such manifestation while the NPG waiver is another symptom of the same. The necessity is to cause strategic equilibrium in a manner in which the realities of the regional situation interplays with the external environment. The one virtue that would serve to bring about balance is transparency.

The next consideration is internal pulls and pressures that the protagonists are subject to. These often defy rationality and tend to serve an agenda that loses sight of purpose of the nuclear deterrent, that is, nuclear war avoidance and, as has been stated by the governments, a repugnance for a nuclear arms race in the cold war mode. Unfortunately, the effect of these internal dynamics is not just to enlarge the arsenal but to drive it in a direction that is neither predictable nor over which controls exist.

The impending mounting of nuclear warheads on the Babur cruise missiles, the work in progress of arming conventional submarines with nuclear tipped missiles are cases in point which do not in anyway uphold stability of a deterrent relationship. Additionally they do not conform to any strategic or doctrinal underpinnings (whose goal is nuclear war avoidance). Far more disturbing is Pakistan’s declared policy to employ non-state actors[iii] as an essential part of their military strategy. Given the fact that both control and custody of the nuclear arsenal is resident with the military and complicity with terrorist organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba is an indispensable part of their gambit, the probability of a failure of orthodox command and control (as conventional wisdom understands it) is cataclysmically high. Such a state of affairs hardly engenders confidence in a deterrent relationship remaining stable. Add to this cauldron the impending operationalising of tactical nuclear weapons and you have the nightmare morph into reality.

“How Much is Enough?” and the Philosophy of Avoidance

Security anxieties that plague the region are fed on a staple of historical suspicions, absence of trust and a stultifying and obsessive paranoia. It places before the planner a lopsided and unbalanced ‘failure conundrum,’ having the potential to spur ‘speculative bulges’ in stockpile of fissile material and in the arsenal all in search of an answer to that open ended inscrutable question of ‘how much is enough?’ Logic for numbers may be found provided the strategic underpinnings that govern the development of the arsenal are kept verifiably transparent. One such logic to cap arsenals is graphically illustrated below:


Conclusion: Out Staring an Abyss

The challenge before us is clear. To put the genie back into the bottle is neither realistic nor a proposition that merits serious consideration. Areas that could be addressed begin with dispelling the veil of opacity that surrounds the nuclear deterrent. Technology intrusions that have put the arsenal on a hair trigger must be subjected to a safety catch through the instruments of transparency and the removal of ambiguities in strategic underpinnings. NCA to NCA communications must be conditioned by institutional verification measures that evaluate and exchange risks and alert status. It is only such devices that will enable strategic restraint to be realized in the region. While these remain the broad objectives, the first series of steps on the road to stability maybe specifically identified as follows:

  • Transparency in strategic underpinnings (including collusion) through the declaration of doctrinal canons must be made unambiguously clear.
  • Command and Control of the deterrent must differentiate between the custodian and the controller as also between the conventional and the nuclear without entertaining the possibility of non-state actors being a part of the overall strategy.
  • Technological intrusions must be made transparent both with a rationale and the impact on arsenals particularly so when the dangers of conventionalizing of the nuclear weapon becomes manifest.
  • Alert status of the deterrent at all times must be communicated. Logic for stockpile or fissile material and numbers and nature of arsenal will serve to eliminate the dangers of speculative bulges.

Thus far nuclear relations in the region have been bedeviled by a persistent effort to combat the monsters that the shroud of covertness has cast; it has left us the unenviable task of out staring an abyss. Nietzche in the circumstance would have advised an assault  on the first causes – dispel opacity.

Download full article here: Shankar, Staring Down an Abyss


[*] Nietzche F. Beyond good and evil, Chapter IV: Apophthegms and Interludes. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.

[i] Dr Strangelove was a Hollywood satire directed by Stanley Kubrick set in the nineteen sixties. The insanity of the tripwire readiness of the American nuclear establishment to initiate a process that sets of a chain reaction which culminates in a nuclear holocaust. The real tragedy in this spoof was the dangers of decentralization and pre delegation, so to the inabilities to control escalation. The irony was that there was no real provocation.

[ii] US Secretary of State cable-30 Nov. Wikileaks key issues

[iii]    General Kayani’s statements with respect to Pakistan’s army’s support to militants as quoted in The Hindu 02 Dec., 2010


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